June 25, 2015

This Epic Sci-Fi Short Was Lit Entirely by Moonlight & Shot at an ISO of 51,200

It was only a matter of time until someone leveraged the insane lowlight capabilities of the a7S and shot a narrative short lit entirely by the light of the moon. That time is now, and that film is Refuge, which was directed by Sam Shapson.

Refuge was, of course, shot on the Sony a7S recording externally to an Atomos Shogun. Shapson and his team chose to shoot on Canon CN-E Primes, wide open at either T/1.3 or T/1.5 depending on the lens. For good measure, they also used a Metabones Speed Booster. Down in the comments of the Vimeo page, Shapson explains how they went about choosing the picture profile for the a7S, as well as a few other pieces of the process.

We tested all of the picture profiles and seriously considered pp7 for s-log, but unfortunately we couldn't reconcile the way it handled noise in the deep shadows unless we graded down about 2 stops, which we couldn't afford to risk committing to. Therefore we landed on pp6, shot wide open at 1/25 with the speedbooster. Lastly, the 4K from the shogun was utilized to give Neat Video every bit of info we could throw it to smooth out the noise. Still, I'm constantly reminding myself how the images here are so much more clear and vibrant than what my eyes were seeing out there in the dark. Still blows me away.

Still from Refuge Short Film
Personally, I'm a bit torn on the aesthetic of the film. On one hand, it definitely looks like it was shot at an extremely high ISO. Certain parts of each image, the skies in particular, are downright noisy and occasionally blocky. On the other hand, that particular aesthetic really seems to work for this film. Were it not for the fact that the noise is being smoothed out by Neat Video, which gives the sky a surreal other-worldly look, kind of like the atmosphere is dancing and constantly moving, then I would be inclined to say it doesn't work. But it does. 

All in all, this is a perfect example of modern technology enabling us to do things that were never before possible. What's even more exciting is that the technology just keeps getting better. In a few year's time, shooting in moonlight might be commonplace.

What are your thoughts on this short? Let us know down in the comments!     

Your Comment

41 Comments

Got to have one hell of a focus puller.

June 25, 2015 at 2:52PM, Edited June 25, 2:52PM

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I wouldn't think it would be any more difficult than any other scenario, possibly easier.
The image on the monitor would have been close to what we see here.
And without the glaring light of day, it was probably a bright and easy to see picture.

June 26, 2015 at 9:36AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
1571

I think he's referring to the wide open apertures. T1.3 would have a very shallow depth of field making pulling focus more difficult than smaller apertures used with more light.

June 27, 2015 at 8:09AM

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While these filmmakers are definitely talented, I don't think this low light implementation works. We're not quite there in terms of shooting in moonlight, but I've seen better moonlight shots from the A7s, like
https://vimeo.com/105690274.
Perhaps that's what their raw footage looked like, but when they graded and denoised it, it made the noise more blocky. It must have been extremely hard for them to focus. The noise for me is just too blocky and smeared to pass. I've seen shots from the 5D3 at 25,600 that seem to look as good. So you're really only gaining, like, one stop with the A7s (maybe two if you're shooting in 4K with a recorder and using a speedbooster).

June 25, 2015 at 3:02PM

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Ok, the aesthetic fails. Which is a shame because it's a kind of fun riff on The Thing that gets pretty pulp towards the end. The best thing about this short was actually the quality of the sound work, with the odd exception of a gust of wind hitting a mic at one point.

Anyway, I don't get why they'd shoot at night to look like day except for the technology headline they've achieved on NFS. They'd have been better off making the effect a little more subtle and aiming to have it look more like night.

June 25, 2015 at 3:05PM

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Greg Latham
One Man Band
159

If they used a Speedbooster, it means thye were in APS-C mode, wich means that recording at 4K using Shogun was pointless, since the cameras upscale the output to 4K, since in APS-C mode, the resolution is more like 2.5K.

June 25, 2015 at 3:06PM

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Rodrigo Prata
Director of Photography
152

...and in aps-c mode a large amount of noise begins at only 3200 iso and looks terrible, but in FF mode you can shoot up to 20K iso and hardly have any noise so whoever had the idea to use this camera in aps-c mode with a speedbooster wasn't thinking clearly.

June 25, 2015 at 10:06PM

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Kaster Troy
Director, DP, Editor
1050

My best guess is since their lenses didn't have image stabilization that they wanted to minimize any rolling shutter they would get in full frame mode. They then used the speedbooster to counter the aps-c crop.

Though that being said, not sure what kind of stabilization gear they brought aside from a tripod for the last shot.

June 25, 2015 at 11:05PM

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Jason L. Wang
Director/Cinematographer/Editor
93

What did the two Gaffers do?

June 25, 2015 at 4:05PM

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James J Lamberg
DOP/1st AC
62

Gaffed off? : )

June 25, 2015 at 8:10PM

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What I'm about to say is in no way meant as a criticism to the filmmakers of both films (actually 3, see the C300 example too https://vimeo.com/36512776). I really appreciate that they made these experiments and showed us their results.

I learned through their efforts that shooting with only moonlight ends up looking like bad day for night. I suppose we could almost call this night for day now. It generally looks flat, dull, and pretty lifeless. Again, this is not a criticism of the filmmakers - I appreciate that they did this and helped me understand how much more aesthetically-pleasing a skillfully-lit nighttime scene looks.

This could have its uses in some unique scenarios (docs, brief special scenes like dream sequences, etc), but after seeing this I would generally stick to lighting a night scene.

June 25, 2015 at 4:51PM, Edited June 25, 4:55PM

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Shen
428

The image is terrible. It looks like a badly compressed VHS copy. Although the "night for a day" look is kind of interesting.

June 25, 2015 at 5:04PM, Edited June 25, 5:04PM

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OK, it's interesting that they did it, but to me it looks like a first draft, where if anyone was honest they'd say "Alright, that was fun, but now let's shoot it with a few fills here and there to give it some better depth and dimension. We're letting a concept get in the way of the film itself." Unfortunately they went ahead and kept it a technical demo and lost the idea that they were supposedly telling a story.
In far too many shots I kept straining a bit to see more, which doesn't draw you in it sets you out. And having this 10" depth of field was also problematic in that they could never actually have two people or objects in focus at the same time, which again definitely pulls you out of the story (when it's used for almost every shot anyway).
It's cool that they tried it, but you have to know when to admit that just because you CAN, doesn't mean you SHOULD.

June 25, 2015 at 5:12PM

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Douglas Bowker
Animation, Video, Motion-Graphics
239

I mean, yeah. In a way this certainly was a 1st draft. Once I realized there was an opportunity to tell a story in a way for which there was no precedent, I couldn't help myself, the curiosity was too much. But SHOULD I do it? How could I truly know until I'd tried?

Ultimately, I'm with you. Unsurprisingly, my conclusion is not that the technology is ready to go toe to toe with modern visual standards...yet :)

June 27, 2015 at 1:42AM

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Sam Shapson
Director
216

Looks really ugly. Thanks for the experiment but the final composite is really hard to watch. Focus issues and noise reduction is too distracting

June 25, 2015 at 5:16PM

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Max Bedroom
Fauxfessional
147

Sorry to hear that Max. Can't knock you for having the high standards. Looking forward to the day the technology lives up to them!

June 26, 2015 at 11:58PM

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Sam Shapson
Director
216

I was really impressed with the two male actors. They did a great job.

June 25, 2015 at 6:02PM

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Emre Tufekci
Director
298

I respect these guys for making the film, as any film is hard hard work, but the image here looks muddy at the higher iso rating, maybe another workflow would have provided better results? Not sure, on another note, up and coming 1st AC's better up their focus pulling skills!

June 25, 2015 at 6:51PM, Edited June 25, 6:51PM

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Thanks man! And yeah, I very honestly am very curious if my chosen workflow could have been improved. Maybe new ideas will surface when I release the BTS.

June 26, 2015 at 11:57PM, Edited June 26, 11:57PM

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Sam Shapson
Director
216

Personally I like the look. Not perfect yet but getting there. I can't see going back to the standard look of blue gelled lights for night we've had to put up with since the advent of technicolor--like those awful True Blood night scenes. Some more refined version of this method is probably the best way to depict night from now on. And for me it shows that under certain circumstances the a7sii would benefit from even more light sensitivity--allowing for deeper more forgiving focus and less noise in low light scenes. Also shows why it needs 10 bit instead of 8.

June 25, 2015 at 7:30PM

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J Robbins
582

The few problems such as the noise didn't stop this from being a nicely shot and written short film. I liked it very much. Good job

June 25, 2015 at 7:48PM, Edited June 25, 7:48PM

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Noise reduction was fine. It just made it look like a classic B sci-fi flick from the 70s. The focus is another issue, however.

Anyway, interesting idea. Executed as well as it could be. I enjoyed it.

June 25, 2015 at 8:09PM, Edited June 25, 8:09PM

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Regardless of the technical qualities*, they got their astronomy down pretty good. Gliese 667 Cc is a confirmed exo-planet with the second-highest Earth Similarity Index (ESI) of .84 (84% similar to Earth). The only exo-planet higher than that is Kepler438b, coming in at .88. (I've geeked out on astronomy once I started doing research for a film.)

*I found the technical issues a bit distracting, but I made an attempt to suspend disbelief by assigning that smeared look to atmospheric conditions on the exo-planet. ; )

June 25, 2015 at 8:15PM

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People....you cannot complain about the way this looks when you know that their key light was 238,900 miles away

June 25, 2015 at 11:26PM

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Phillip Shvartsman
Film Student
116

I hadn't even thought about that way! Then again, I suppose the actually key light was 92,960,000 miles away. With the bounce a mere 238,900 miles away.

June 26, 2015 at 11:55PM

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Sam Shapson
Director
216

It's funny, we have such great low light cameras now that something shot entirely in moonlight looks like bad day for night.

June 26, 2015 at 12:09AM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1502

Well done! Aside from the technical aspect that had little impact on my appreciation of the storytelling, I enjoyed the writing, performances and felt the director had a good handle on what he intended to accomplish. I personally feel this film is a standout compared to many shorts out there.

June 26, 2015 at 12:32AM

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The noise reduction killed this the most. That and probably using the speedbooster. Seeing through that, I'm very intrigued by the idea of shooting with just moonlight, especially to make an alien planet. Ideally, I would use the Varicam 35 with Vantage's T1.0 lenses. It's probably something I'll try in the future.

June 26, 2015 at 1:40AM

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Peter Phillips
Filmmaker
659

Good luck man! I'd love to check it out

June 26, 2015 at 11:52PM

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Sam Shapson
Director
216

The a7S is a great step in camera evolution. I think it is camera of the year. The low light paradigm has been changed. The only thing I would say to Sony is work toward 4:4:4 with 14 bit. Nice lofty goal. :-) Color is lacking in the a7S.

June 26, 2015 at 2:04AM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
1642

Can´t wait to see what is capable to do the A7S mkII! Regarding the film, I´ve seen some shorts better exposed.

June 26, 2015 at 7:25AM

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Jubal
Filmmaker
67

Sam, ask your detractors here to show you one thing they've shot that could compare.
Hell, just ask them to show you one thing they've shot.
I'm betting you get zero responses.

Great job!

June 26, 2015 at 9:30AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
1571

Haha appreciate the support, Richard! No lie, at first its kind of a bummer, but honestly, the fact that something I've put into the world has spurred such wide spread critical discussion is enormously humbling. Still. You rock, sir :)

June 26, 2015 at 11:51PM

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Sam Shapson
Director
216

It says 'lit entirely by moonlight'. I find this hard to accept - having spent a bunch of time hiking at night under a full moon. Moonlight, unimpeded by clouds, behaves very much like sunlight - it's harsh and contrasty. I'm pretty sure they used supplemental lighting to fill in the shadows created by all that backlighting. Liked the acting and the direction. And... I like the idea of shooting a moonlit scene.

June 26, 2015 at 4:10PM, Edited June 26, 4:10PM

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Hey, I'm Sam! I know, I had a lot of trouble accepting that this would be possible myself. That's why the DP and I insisted on several extensive camera tests exploring whether this was possible before committing to this extreme approach. You're right about the fill light, however this is merely the amazingly effective work of two 4x4 bead boards bouncing the existing moonlight into the shadows on their faces. Beyond that, the edge lighting is the same technique used in daylight where coordinating the blocking, camera direction, and schedule to make of the most of the moon's shifting position throughout the night.

June 26, 2015 at 11:45PM

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Sam Shapson
Director
216

I shoot stills in conditions like this often. Full moon light does indeed behave like sunlight, but it should be noted that the dynamic range is compressed since the moon is a much dimmer light source—add to that increased levels of ambient (relatively) due to general light pollution, etc. It's a cool look that is sunlight-like, but the dark areas are much 'fuller' and not clipped as they would be on a bright day.

June 27, 2015 at 5:17PM

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I'm curious about the Speed Booster. I thought the extra light gathering only worked when applying full frame lenses on to smaller than full frame sensors.

June 26, 2015 at 6:52PM

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J Robbins
582

I'm really curious to find out why they decided to use a speedbooster and shoot in aps-c. That literally makes no sense unless they wanted to lessen rolling shutter, which they did not mention. Shooting full frame at 4k would have given a much cleaner image.

June 27, 2015 at 10:39AM

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Daniel Waghorne
Cinematographer/Drone Pilot
159

Somebody sure couldn't keep his hands of the 'unsharpen mask' butten

June 27, 2015 at 2:21PM

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Michael Van Ostade
Director
239

I think this film did a pretty good job of using the moonlight to create a not here on Earth feeling. That not quite day, and not quite night effect works best when we see the stars. I found the noise reduction mush distracting. Would like to have seen it without any noise reduction, even in camera. Sometimes noise is less disturbing than the mush left after removing it. Anyway the actors did well. Nice effort.

July 4, 2015 at 5:34PM

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Kevin O'Brien
DP/Editor
74

Kudos to Sam and team. While this may not make the big screen at a plex near you, it's done it's dual job very well: demo of the technology and training for the crew. Next time they have to do a super-dim shoot, they'll be light years ahead of all of us in terms of being able to actually DO the shot. I remember doing a fashion shoot (stills) under moonlight when the Canon 1Div came out. While it didn't get me many moonlit fashion gigs, it did prep me for super low light on *other* gigs where clients were amazed at what I could do with 2W of light. Keep pushing the frontier, Sam!

July 19, 2015 at 1:36PM, Edited July 19, 1:36PM

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Erik Stenbakken
Videographer & Photographer
397